It is 117 years since the first motor car came to Johannesburg, South Africa. According to historian Anna Smith’s book Johannesburg Firsts it was a Benz Voiturette that was driven around before a large crowd at the Wanderers track in Johannesburg. It was described as the “rage and topic of all Europe” and a noiseless carriage. Voiturette is the French word for a small car, and this first vehicle to arrive in Johannesburg struggled to make walking pace with its wheezing engine.
Now, years later, the truly ‘noiseless’ carriages are on their way to South Africa. They will come in the shape of an electric car called LEAF, which is an acronym for Leading, Environmentally-friendly, Affordable, Family car. However, one of the concerns about electric cars is that, because they tend to be so noiseless, unwary pedestrians do not hear them coming when crossing roads.
Like the wheezing Voiturette, this car is also a “rage and topic” in other parts of the world. It came onto the market in Japan and the United States in 2010 and the following year in Canada and Europe, where it has won the Car of the Year award. In February its global sales topped 50,000.
The LEAF is made by Nissan and will start selling in South Africa later this year. It is a fully electric five-door hatchback with a battery range said to be 175km. Production has begun in North America and Europe, after the car was initially only produced in Japan, and there are two more models in the pipeline.
Nissan says the improvements in the new models include an extended driving range, greater recyclability, more interior space, better charging performance, more equipment and, of course, a greater choice. Subtle styling changes to the nose of the car have improved its already impressive aerodynamic efficiency.
Government, business and conservationists are hopeful that it will start a trend away from South Africa’s carbon-belching road traffic towards a greener system. It is aimed also at reducing the country’s heavy reliance on imported and ever-more expensive oil.
If it takes off, the car could also see the construction of intermittent ‘filling stations’ with solar-power backup along the highways where drivers could recharge their cars. The idea is to make the least possible use of the coal-fired power grid, thereby further reducing reliance on climate-changing energy.
Nissan South Africa is working closely with the government to prepare the infrastructure, most notably the recharging network. To initiate the joint project, the company has given the Department of Environmental Affairs four of the cars to test over three years.
The use of solar power to recharge the cars is part of the test. At the project’s launch in February, the department’s minister, Edna Molewa, said a 15 kilowatt solar tracking device has been installed at Environmental Affairs’ new green building, which is still under construction. She said the installation would produce enough electricity to charge the cars and to feed excess electricity into the power grid as a way of offsetting the carbon footprint of the building’s construction.
“Any carbon footprint of the vehicle is thus neutralized through the use of free solar energy generated by the tracker. Where charging is required overnight this is offset by the excess energy that the trackers produce during the day. The amount of electricity utilized for charging and running of the vehicle is carefully monitored and logged and is offset against the amount of electricity generated by the solar tracker.”
“It is envisaged that in future, these tracking devices will be installed on the major commuter routes for the direct charging of vehicles in real time. An e-transport location analysis will be conducted in partnership with other government agencies to inform the roll-out of the solar e-cars installation package at key transportation and commuter hubs countrywide, such as key government precincts, Gautrain stations, O.R. Tambo International Airport, key commercial centers and business districts,” she says Molewa.
The move towards greener vehicles is seen also to present opportunities for making the automotive and related industries greener. South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry has already gazetted the Electric Vehicle Industry Strategy, which is meant to guide investment into car manufacturing.
Other partners in the project are the Departments of Transport, Energy, and Science and Technology, South African Revenue Services, Eskom (the electricity supply commission), municipalities and other car manufacturers and suppliers.
Molewa said in her speech at the launch of the LEAF project that transition in the design and production of alternative propulsion systems should be aimed at maintaining and increasing South Africa’s global market share in the automotive sector, while meeting its commitment to decrease its carbon footprint.
South Africa is listed as the 18th largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, though in Africa it is by far the biggest, accounting for 80% of the continent’s output. The industry contributes around 6% to the gross domestic product and employs more than 230,000 people in manufacturing, distribution and sales.
For Molewa, the first step towards capturing part of the green-car market is for South Africa to develop and grow the market domestically. Hopes are pinned on such development to provide jobs. Molewa even speaks of the transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy as a likely new engine of development.
But with the transportation sector said to be globally responsible for 30% of carbon emissions, and with the number of vehicles on the world’s roads edging towards one billion, a prime objective remains to reduce the amount of climate-changing gas coming from exhaust pipes. The LEAF project is a part of this objective.